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No, Ben Franklin Didn’t Want a Turkey on the Great Seal

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Maybe you’ve heard this story before: Ben Franklin, enamored with the “respectable” personality of the wild turkey, wanted to see it, instead of the bald eagle, become the national bird and be used as a symbol for the new United States. However, he lost out to the eagle supporters in Congress. It’s a quirky little story, often brought up when conversation turns to turkeys or eagles, and has been repeated both by average joes and the National Wildlife Federation.

The hitch is that the story has become so warped over time that it's more myth than fact.

First off, Franklin wasn’t involved in the designation of the eagle as the national bird or its selection as an element in the Great Seal of the United States. He did sit on the first committee appointed to work on the seal’s design with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1776, but there’s no record of him arguing against an eagle design or suggesting a turkey. Franklin’s official suggestion for the seal while on the committee was actually a Biblical scene: “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. ‘Motto - Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.’”

The committee decided to make this the reverse side of the seal, and on the front wanted to depict a shield with emblems symbolizing “the Countries from which these States have been peopled,” including an Imperial Eagle to represent Germany. There’s no written record to suggest that Franklin had anything to say about the eagle. Congress, however, did have some issue with the design. The same day they received the committee’s report and proposal, they had it tabled.

Two more committees, neither of which Franklin served on, were formed in 1780 and 1782 and continued work on the seal. The final design and inclusion of the bald eagle was the work of the third committee. Their design was initially similar to the first committee’s, with a central shield flanked by the figures of a soldier and “maiden America.” They then simplified the image and replaced the two figures with a bald eagle “on the wing and rising.” Here again, there’s no record of a complaint from Franklin, who was then serving as an envoy to Paris and hadn’t participated in the seal design process for six years. Franklin probably couldn’t have said anything about the design even if he had wanted to. Congress approved the seal just three weeks after the design was finished, and travel time from Europe to the U.S. at the time was closer to six to eight weeks, leaving no time for there to be a turkey-versus-eagle debate for Franklin to have lost.

So, if Franklin didn’t propose the turkey in committee or argue against the eagle design when it was being considered, where did people get the idea that he was a turkey lover?

It wasn’t until two years after the final seal was designed and approved that Franklin put his feelings about eagles and turkeys down for posterity. In January 1784, he wrote his daughter a letter, the main subject of which was the Society of the Cincinnati, a military fraternity formed by revolutionary war officers. Franklin griped at length about the society, complaining that membership was hereditary and that the group had taken on many of the characteristics of a chivalric order, which contradicted many of the ideals the society’s members had just fought a war to promote and protect.

Eventually, Franklin turned his attention to the society’s badge. Some of the Society’s critics, Franklin said, complained about the badge’s use of Latin. Others found fault with the title for members that it used. And others took issue with the bald eagle that it depicted, which Franklin said looked “too much like a Dindon, or Turkey.”

He wrote:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie.

“I am on this account not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

In repetitions of the Franklin-turkey story, these passages are often taken out of context and made to seem like public statements by Franklin, or made in direct response to the use of the eagle on the Great Seal, instead of private musings made about the eagle’s use by a military society. And while Franklin does lament the eagle becoming symbolic of both the Society and the United States after the fact, he doesn’t say that the turkey would have been a better choice for the Great Seal; he only suggests that he likes that the Society’s eagle resembles a turkey because the turkey is a “more respectable” bird.

Given his criticism of the Society’s practices, “brave and honest” as its members are, and the line about the turkey being “a little vain and silly” but still “a Bird of Courage” driving out the Red Coats, one might read Franklin’s comparisons as just poking some fun at the Society. Even if you take what Franklin said about both birds at face value, though, the story as it's usually told misses the mark and takes some liberties with both Franklin’s opinions and actions. To portray Franklin in “strenuous opposition to it [the eagle] when the great seal was under consideration” and unsuccessfully advocating to replace it with the turkey, says the American Heraldry Society, “is a gross exaggeration of the historical record.”

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
Original image
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Animals
Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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